We arrived at the White House on Easter Monday, the South Lawn overrun by children and their parents enjoying the annual Easter Egg Roll. This was the fourth time in the past four years that we had sat down for an extensive interview with Barack Obama, but the tenor and timing were markedly different than the previous conversations. This time he was focused on the campaign, his thinking dominated by the upcoming battle for a second term.
The president was more somber than in our past interviews – and less inclined to depart from the handful of themes he had been concentrating on in recent weeks. He avoided discussing Mitt Romney, even when asked a direct question, and focused primarily on the very real constraints he operates under as president, from the intransigence of Congress to the dilemma of America's anti-drug laws. He also seemed intent on summing up the arguments he'll soon be taking out on the campaign trail, making clear that he plans to run on his remarkable record of accomplishments: extending health insurance to 32 million Americans, staving off a major economic collapse, rescuing the auto industry, reforming student loans, ending discrimination against gay soldiers, pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, and passing one of the largest middle-class tax cuts in history.
The hourlong discussion was the longest and most substantive interview the president has granted in over a year. When executive editor Eric Bates and I joined him in the Oval Office, he began by signaling his staff to push back his schedule. "Just call Secretary Clinton's office and tell her we're going to be about 10 minutes late," he said.
"Twenty minutes," I suggested.
"Fifteen," he said with mock sternness.
Later, after the interview ended, we found Hillary sitting in a small chair, scrunched between the desk of Obama's secretary and the door to the Oval Office. The two former rivals now seem completely at ease with each other. Clinton joked about the popularity of the fake Tumblr site Texts From Hillary Clinton, and Obama began to air-thumb an imaginary text. "See, I'm hip," he said with a laugh.
The president even made light of his campaign-season caution. Having complimented me during our last interview on my brightly colored socks, he instantly guessed the gift we had brought him: two pairs of socks, one salmon with pink squares, the other with black and pink stripes. "These are nice," the president said. Then he considered the color scheme. "These may be second-term socks."
Let's talk about the campaign. Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?
First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. If you talk to a lot of Republicans, they'd like to see us balance the budget, but in a balanced way. A lot of them are concerned about jobs and economic growth and favor market-based solutions, but they don't think we should be getting rid of every regulation on the books. There are a lot of Republican voters out there who are frustrated with Wall Street and think that they acted irresponsibly and should be held to account, so they don't want to roll back regulations on Wall Street.
But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream – and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. You have every candidate onstage during one of the primary debates rejecting a deficit-reduction plan that involved $10 in cuts for every $1 of revenue increases. You have a Republican front-runner who rejects the Dream Act, which would help young people who, through no fault of their own, are undocumented, but who have, for all intents and purposes, been raised as Americans. You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Doesn't all of that kind of talk and behavior during the primaries define the party and what they stand for?
I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves. Think about John McCain, who obviously I have profound differences with. Here's a guy who not only believed in climate change, but co-sponsored a cap-and-trade bill that got 43 votes in the Senate just a few years ago, somebody who thought banning torture was the right thing to do, somebody who co-sponsored immigration reform with Ted Kennedy. That's the most recent Republican candidate, and that gives you some sense of how profoundly that party has shifted.
Given all that, what do you think the general election is going to look like, and what do you think of Mitt Romney?
I think the general election will be as sharp a contrast between the two parties as we've seen in a generation. You have a Republican Party, and a presumptive Republican nominee, that believes in drastically rolling back environmental regulations, that believes in drastically rolling back collective-bargaining rights, that believes in an approach to deficit reduction in which taxes are cut further for the wealthiest Americans, and spending cuts are entirely borne by things like education or basic research or care for the vulnerable. All this will be presumably written into their platform and reflected in their convention. I don't think that their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, "Everything I've said for the last six months, I didn't mean." I'm assuming that he meant it. When you're running for president, people are paying attention to what you're saying.
How does that shape the tone and tenor of the debate that's going to take place during the campaign?
I actually think it will be a useful debate, and one that I look forward to. I think that the American people are going to be listening very intently to who's got a vision for how we move this country forward.
Their vision is that if there's a sliver of folks doing well at the top who are unencumbered by any regulatory restraints whatsoever, that the nation will grow and prosperity will trickle down. The challenge that they're going to have is: We tried it. From 2000 to 2008, that was the agenda. It wasn't like we have to engage in some theoretical debate – we've got evidence of how it worked out. It did not work out well, and I think the American people understand that.
Now, the burden on me is going to be to describe for the American people how the progress we've made over the past three years, if sustained, will actually lead to the kind of economic security that they're looking for. There's understandable skepticism, because things are still tough out there. You still have an unemployment rate that's way too high, you have folks whose homes are underwater because the housing bubble burst, people are still feeling the pinch from high gas prices. The fact of the matter is that times are still tough for too many people, and the recovery is still not as robust as we'd like, and that's what will make it a close election. It's not because the other side has a particularly persuasive theory in terms of how they're going to move this country forward.
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